Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5

Last Friday night to hear the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play Schubert, music from Rosamunde and “Unfinished” Symphony, and, with Nicholas Angelich, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.

It was the Beethoven 4 which really drew me in. It’s my favourite Beethoven [piano] concerto – if only because I am a countersuggestible type and feel compelled to go beyond the general (or at least ABC-Classic-FM-poll) favourite, No 5.

The hall was a little under half-full, by my reckoning (500-550; usual suspects observed on complimentary tickets). My neighbours told me it was about the same on the first night (when I would expect even more dignitaries and sponsors to attend).

The TSO’s approach to marketing remains puzzling – or alternatively just predictably misconceived.

For months, it was selling only the first level of the hall. Owing to the pricing policies it had adopted, this meant that the cheapest seats were $80 (A reserve) and there was otherwise a $100+ Premium reserve. I have complained about the pricing structure before. No wonder sales were slow. Eventually, the second level was opened up, though even this only brought a B reserve at $49 into play: in the very last row of the circle and in the last bays of the galleries at the side of the stage. Tellingly, the night I went, the back row and the keyboard side gallery were practically full (the non-keyboard side was relatively empty but my neighbours told me it was fuller on the first night). There is a demand for the seats at this price.

I heard the first half of the Thursday concert courtesy of the live broadcast. There is a very jaunty little skipping theme in Die Zauberharfe which is very difficult to dislodge.

As to the Friday program, it was a shame that there weren’t more to hear it. The Schubert was delightful (Rosamunde) and quite satisfactory (the symphony) and the Beethoven, well not the best I’ve heard it, but still compelling. I expect it would have been better if I’d had a more frontal piano sound (I was sitting in the opposite gallery). Serves me right for being frugal – but what can one do but lend one’s weight to the invisible hand?

The TSO has a distinctive wind section. First, because the flautists are both male – masculinity is almost a disqualification for any full-time flute playing job in Sydney (though there are two males who supplement the AOBA flute section). Secondly, because the principal oboe and clarinet both have rather old-fashioned sounds. Paradoxically, this means a thinner oboe sound, but a rounder clarinet sound than has more recently become the fashion. I wonder if the seeming convergence of sound is a trend driven by a drive for sectional blend. Still, there was nothing wrong with the famous moment (as featured in orchestration textbooks) in the “Unfinished” where the clarinet and oboe double the opening theme an octave apart.

On Saturday night, to the SOH for Fidelio.

On my way in, I overheard an intriguingly urgent conversation about paging someone between a member of the house staff and someone who had emerged from backstage.

As D is away, I had returned his seat, and my neighbour in his place, Po, told me how much he was looking forward to hearing Nicole Youl as the heroine, Leonore. She was originally a substitute for Lisa Gasteen, but had only sung one matinee, being replaced at the opening night and all other performances by Elizabeth Stannard.

Just as the curtain seemed destined to rise, OA’s General Manager, Mr Collette emerged from behind it to announce that, as she was warming up, Nicole Youl became indisposed, her understudy was in Melbourne, Anke Höppner was coming in to sing the role from the side of the stage (NY would mime and speak the dialogue) but that Anke wasn’t here yet. The curtain would go up at 8.15.

Often I am a bit skeptical about exactly how last-minute Opera Australia “emergency” indispositions are, but the overheard conversation in this case puts Mr Collette in the clear. Just as well Anke H only had to come in from Turella. At least that’s what my friend Sk told me when I rang him to kill time whilst waiting for the show to start. (The SMH says Bardwell Park: so he was pretty close.) Sk knows this sort of thing because for many years he drove a cab. On account of his operatic enthusiasm and knowledge of show finishing times, he frequently picked up at the SOH after shows. As well as conversations with individual artists, he has a rich supply of overheard conversations from OA luvvies when they travelled together in the back of his cab.

In the end, it was 8.10. Fortunately, it is a short opera.

Anke did pretty well. Given that she had no rehearsal, she did excellently. As always seems to be the case with stage-side singers, she warmed to her task as the evening went on, though probably the dramatic stuff at the end suited her better than her first big aria. She sings big which makes her voice less manoeuvrable for the curly bits.

The last time I heard Anke she was also standing in – for Cheryl Barker in The Macropoulous Secret. It’s a bit surprising and even insulting in a way that OA can’t find the occasional real role for her.

A friend whom I ran into on Monday night (who had not gone to the same performance of Fidelio as I had) was very critical of the production and more specifically its musical values and conducting in particular. He’d seen better recently, he said, on a Tuesday night in Turin. He is well-travelled. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about that because it is a great work and though there was some scrappiness, there wasn’t anything that came between me and the work. Fidelio gave Beethoven a lot of difficulty, but it really is full of a lot of very solid music, even if it starts off (after the overture) a bit like the Papageno parts of The Magic Flute. I always come out tapping the rhythm of “Retterin des Gatten sein” from the final chorus.

So far as the drama is concerned, there is one grimly funny moment which (though criticised for it) Conal Coad made even funnier. Leonora (disguised as the young man, Fidelio) is recruited by Rocco (CC) to assist him to go down to the deepest darkest cell where the unknown political prisoner (whom she suspects to be her husband, Florestan) is being starved and thirsted [OK: “thirsted” is not an actual word, but he’s on short supplies of water as well as food] to death. News has come that the minister is coming to visit the gaol and Pizzaro, the governor of the gaol, knows that if the minister finds Florestan there the game will be up. He decides that Florestan must die sooner than previously planned. He orders Rocco to dig a grave (and pays him generously for this). Rocco tells Leonore that they have to bury the prisoner. Rocco is a bit evasive about this: Leonore asks: “Is he dead?” Rocco says: “Not yet.” Leonore presses him: “So is your job to kill him?” Rocco answers, reassuringly (so he thinks), that Leonore shouldn’t be afraid: the governor himself will be coming to do that. Their job is just to dig the grave. As if that makes it all right. Rocco would never be involved in murdering anybody. (Shades of Neddy Smith, years ago: “I’m a thief, not a liar.”)

Julian Gavin as Florestan was the best I have ever heard him. And that’s not meant as some veiled insult or even faint praise: I found him quite convincing, musically and dramatically.

Perhaps I suffered from being up too close to be convinced by Peter Coleman-Wright as Pizzaro. Vocally, he is convincing, but he always seems such a nice chap and there is something about the way he moves around that made me feel that his baddiness was all a bit of a giggle. I think I first saw Robert Allman in this part, and he was really a monster. I was probably further away from the stage, and also quite possibly more readily convinced. That’s a bit of a theory I have about all remembered experience, and certainly about action on the stage. I can recall being utterly convinced as a child and teenager by dramatic depictions which I am sure, re-viewed through adult eyes, would fail to have the same impact.

Fidelio did provide an opportunity to compare the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the TSO in Beethoven. The AOBO had about 1 string player more right down the line (9/8/6/5/4, I think, though I’m working from memory by now). It is of course hampered by the pit and the demands of pit work. It would be nice to see the orchestra out on the stage more often but they hardly have the time for it. If they were, my guess is that the AOBO’s violins mightn’t measure up to the TSO’s, though if they could match them for rehearsal and preparation time (as well as time on the stage rather than the pit) maybe they would.

One Response to “Beethoven, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in Sydney 5”

  1. wanderer Says:

    We had a funny moment with Conal Coad on the previous Wednesday night’s performance. When Pizzaro (and I agree with you about P C-W whom I found just a bit too swishy-nasty and the lesser for trying to imbue more blackness into his voice than is naturally there) threw the bag of money to Rocco to cement his support, it (the bag) landed on the grate (presumably with the withering Florestan below) and just as Rocco (CC) went to retrieve it, it slipped through and disappeared from sight leaving CC bent forward looking down through the holes, like one of those frozen moments, his hand with nothing to retrieve and Florestan with the loot. There’s something about Conal Coad. Warwick Fife has it also.

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